The Meandering Geometry of Sound

»I see my role as the composer to work out some kind of synthesis, to spin them into a new shape that makes sense out of all these elements.« – Christopher Trapani

For the last seven months, American composer Christopher Trapani has been living at Solitude in one of the so-called »musicians’ studios,« which face the castle’s courtyard. While it is a drab and rainy November day outside, Christopher’s studio shows a colorful chaos between the meanderings of the Mississippi and patterned tiles; strings and cables; coffee and Campari; notes and scores. In his compositions, Christopher creates acoustic »overflows« based on a wide range of different musical styles such as blues, Ottoman, and spectral music, as well as influences from literature, encounters, and places. Lately, Christopher has been working on a new piece called Difficult Places, whose world premiere will be performed by the renowned Ensemble Modern, a group of international soloists based in Frankfurt am Main who are dedicated to performing contemporary compositions. And as for the other pieces, perhaps his passion for oriental tiles can explain more …


Marte Kräher: Christopher, what do new music and oriental tiles have in common?

Christopher Trapani: I can think of so many parallels! Mosaics are like orchestrations, images formed by assembling many small stones. Or maybe like rich sounds broken down into component frequencies. There’s also an analogy with my way of working with electronics; I often create large collages of sound from single grains of pre-recorded samples, stitched together into a dense texture (a process known as concatenative synthesis).

Zellij patterns suggest an immediate vibrancy to me, enticing designs that get more complex the closer you look. Their inventiveness within the constraints of geometric rigidity always make me think of polyrhythms: multiple rhythmic loops happening simultaneously.

I’m reminded of a quote by the great French composer Gérard Grisey: »absolute, mechanical periodicity tires the listener as much as a ceiling or wall composed of perfectly equidistant tiles.« And as long as I can remember, I’ve been bored by things that happen too predictably, was always interfering – especially on the rhythmic level – by introducing jagged edges into my music.

MK: As a composer, do you feel more American or European?

CT: These questions of identity – the main obsession of our time – are so tough to answer. I grew up in the US, spent the formative years of my professional life in Europe, and now bounce back and forth between the two scenes, lucky enough to have projects in both. The lines of influence are always blurred: My hometown of New Orleans is one of the most »European« of American cities, whereas Paris, where I lived for seven years, is the European capital that draws the highest number of Americans.

What counts for me is that I was free to explore, to follow my interests to new places as they arose, and to broaden my palette by incorporating my firsthand discoveries. I was enchanted with spectral music, so I stayed in Paris a while, went to IRCAM; I got interested in fast microtones and went to Istanbul.

So I see my musical identity as an organic outgrowth of my own trajectory, a blend of my time on both continents. There are definite American elements mixed side-by-side with techniques I learned abroad. Waterlines is maybe the best example, born out of a mediation on similarities between spectralism and the blues. The important thing for me is to let it happen naturally – not to try to sound »American« or »French,« but to draw freely upon whatever feels appropriate for a given moment.

Lately, you have been working on a new project with Ensemble Modern as well as a repeat performance with JACK Quartet, an American string quartet for contemporary classical music. Can you tell more about these projects?

CT: Well the JACK Quartet gave the German premiere last Tuesday of Visions and Revisions, a piece they first performed at Wigmore Hall in January 2014. Knowing I’d be nearby, they were kind enough to include it on the program in Frankfurt, since I’d be able to attend the concert. But that turned out to be a lost cause, since an air traffic control strike interfered, and I managed to miss the performance.

My latest piece, Difficult Places, is a big one for Ensemble Modern. Its title comes from a letter written by Paul Bowles, an author and composer who was born in New York but lived the second half of his life in Tangiers:

»I’ve never yet felt a part of any place I’ve been, and I never expect to. But naturally, the fewer people there are in a place, and the less there is happening, the less conscious I am of missing what is going on under my nose. Which is why I like the most difficult places.« – Paul Bowles

Leonel Dietsche, the filmmaker with whom I’m collaborating for this piece, and I chose as our departure point our common admiration for Bowles—his enigmatic outsider persona, his full immersion into the exotic . We met in New York City in April, then traveled together to Morocco in June, collecting sounds and images for the piece. The result is a three-layered composition: a live ensemble of eighteen players on stage, a collage of sound design projected in four speakers around the audience, and two large screens above the stage that display Leonel’s video – which is composed of small clips, triggered in real time. It should be a fairly unique audio-visual experience, I’m hoping…

In terms of working with other artists, how do musicians react to your sometimes unusual choices of instruments, like couscous or the stroh violin combined with electronic sounds?

CT: The odd instrumentarium is a crucial component of my work. Those sonorities inspire me, and even if they make it sometimes harder for my pieces to be performed, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to keep those sounds in my work. I’ve gotten some funny looks in the past, but usually I’m fortunate enough to be able to work with musicians who like to experiment themselves, and so are willing to indulge my idiosyncrasies. Especially Ensemble Modern: it’s been a treat to work closely with those players over a long period. We first met in January, then had a recording session in August, where I experimented one-on-one with certain musicians. That’s where I asked the percussionist to pour rice and couscous into the rin (Japanese singing bowls), had the bass player insert a strip of paper between his strings to create a buzzing effect. Then with the entire group we recorded some warped versions of »period pieces,« a foxtrot and an Ellington-style big band number; you can hear excerpts of both in the final piece.

What do you hope to communicate with your pieces?

CT: I guess I really do still believe in encoding and transmitting experience through my music. There’s always some emotional curve that I’m tracing – maybe a form that outlines the arc of a particular event, or a carnival atmosphere that invokes a sensory overflow. I like it when my works are »about something« beyond their inner techniques, something that can be described to non-specialists. Difficult Places is about the exotic versus the familiar. Spinning in Infinity is about cycles of color, gradually slowing to reveal more detail. Alcohol and Algebra is about the history of the guitar, from Andalusia to the Mississippi Delta. Writing Against Time (inspired by Micahel Clune’s book of the same name) is about »stopping time« – the sensation of suspension in an enveloping present, prolonging the wonder and enchantment of a new aesthetic discovery.

MK: One of your favorite topics seems to be related to places. What impact does the city of Helmut Lachenmann have on your compositions?

CT: Hmm, Stuttgart … Maybe I’ll write a symphonic ode to the Feuersee S-Bahn station? To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to explore the city that much, partly because I’ve been so absorbed with projects and partly because I wanted to make the most of not really being in a city for a change.

I’m the type of composer who tries new things with each piece, for sure. I have a great sympathy with artists like Stravinsky, Berio, or Bob Dylan, who are constantly reinventing themselves without too much concern about stylistic continuity. Above all I want to be open to new potential sources of inspiration, to let myself react freely to what I encounter and not be constrained by aesthetic preconceptions. Plus I like the idea of adopting disguises, borrowing musical gestures from multiple styles – a fascination I see in the tradition of assemblage, allusion, and intertextuality.

Once you have an idea for a topic, how does it develop in the process of composing?

CT: I often make a list (sometimes mental, sometimes physical) of everything I want to include in a certain piece, often by a process of brainstorming/association. It can turn into quite a catalog. In Difficult Places for instance, the New York and Morocco »storyline« led to a soundscape that encompasses subway screeches, traffic noise, drums on the Djema el Fnaa, chanting, arabo-andalus music, radio static, the aforementioned foxtrot and big band numbers, waves, the wind, chatter in a crowded market, and even a low solo flute recorded by Paul Bowles himself.

I’m not saying that the ingredients count for more than the final outcome, but I have a definite preference for a wide range of source materials, and I see my role as the composer to work out some kind of synthesis, to spin them into a new shape that makes sense out of all these elements. I see that same melting-pot, chaotic amalgam of disparate influences in places (New Orleans, Istanbul), writers (Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers), and music (Delta blues, Ligeti, Graceland) that I love.

MK: How do you know when a composition is finished?

CT: When it’s two weeks past the delivery deadline … No, that’s not a hard one for me. I usually have a certain shape in mind when I set out, and when it’s filled in with the right level of detail, it’s done. Sometimes though I stretch out the process, like when I finish a score but save the electronics for later.

Besides the project mentioned above, what have you been working during your time at Solitude?

CT: I started my stay here with a new piece for the guitar duo O Mensch (also 2013–15 Solitude fellows), Alcohol and Algebra, which we premiered at Der Sommer in Stuttgart festival in June. Then I wrote Isolario: Book of Known Islands for the Quatuor Béla and GRAME, and now Difficult Places. Three pieces, composed entirely here, in seven months: That’s a lot of work for me; I generally do about three pieces in a year.

What does your daily life here at Solitude look like?

CT: My daily routine … I was disappointed to discover it’s not that different at Solitude from what it is in New York. No matter where I am I spend most of the day answering emails, preparing grant applications, updating my website, editing patches and audio, cleaning up old scores – and just maybe adding a few notes to a new one. It sometimes felt less like isolation and more like a vastly deepening relationship with the internet. I admit that I’d envisioned a lot more unscheduled time to let my mind meander; in reality predefined projects and deadlines gave me little wiggle room.

I have really enjoyed though having a studio filled with instruments that I can wander around and play. Some of these are directly related to upcoming projects, like a quarter-tone guitar sent from Finland, by a guitarist named Juuso Nieminen who has commissioned a piece from me. Then there’s the piano, which I had retuned when I moved in, so I can improvise in the tuning (borrowed from Griseys Vortex Temporum), that I’ll be using in a new piece for Marilyn Nonken next year. And then there are those I’ve collected myself over the last several months, like the nine-string mandola that I bought in a bazaar in Tetouan, Morocco and have been fixing up ever since. It’s gotten a new bridge and strings, along with a recent paint job from Yorjander Capetillo Hernández. And there’s also the vioara cu goarna from Western Romania, a fiddle with a communist boy scouts’ bugle fitted to a resonator below the bridge. I’m fascinated by this instrument, dying to incorporate it in a new piece soon.

MK: What are your plans for the time after Solitude?

CT: I’m supposedly heading back to New York City in December, but in reality trying to ride out as much of the winter as possible down south in New Orleans. Otherwise, just the usual routine of either travelling for performances or crouching over my laptop working out the next composition.